GREEN­LAND HIGH

Passage Maker - - Troubleshooter -

CALL IT AN IN­SANE AD­DIC­TION,

yet we find that stalk­ing ice­bergs is cool (lit­er­ally), en­ter­tain­ing, en­light­en­ing, and leads to high ad­ven­ture. Af­ter three sum­mers of weav­ing through and avoid­ing col­li­sions with ice in Labrador’s wa­ters we de­vel­oped a voyeur’s fond­ness for this tran­sient Earth Art. The ice­bergs off Labrador of­ten re­call Henry Moore’s pieces, their tex­tures, tur­rets, and nee­dles smoothed by winds and waves dur­ing the long voy­age from their birth places in the far north. To see them at the very fresh­est, most com­plex shapes we pointed the bow at the mid-coast of western Green­land.

Green­land looks so far away—why not head for its closer south­ern coast? The truth is that a land­fall too far south brings the boat into no­to­ri­ously vi­o­lent weather and fog-con­ceal­ing heavy ice. This ice comes from the east coast, rounds Cap Farvel and then, helped by north­ward cur­rent, tacks along the south­west­ern shore­line. By the mid-coast of western Green­land heavy ice floes dis­ap­pear. Only a few of the grand­est bergs sur­vive the long drift through Davis Strait and into Baf­fin Bay. And there, in north­west­ern Green­land, nu­mer­ous sui­ci­dal glaciers shed huge chunks. These then drift west­ward and end up in the Labrador Cur­rent, flow­ing south. The hoary bergs we ad­mired in Labrador may have trav­eled the long cir­cuit of Arc­tic wa­ters over sev­eral years.

Un­will­ing to take the old ice head-on we shaped our course to­ward the more man­age­able, yet equally grand, ice­berg pa­rades of Disko Bay and Umanak Fjord. There, stu­pen­dous tide­wa­ter glaciers slide from the ice cap to­ward the sea. Un­der­mined by wa­ter, they drop walls of ice the size of New York City blocks. This calv­ing, as some glaciol­o­gists term it, ac­tu­ally rum­bles more like a ter­mi­nal bat­tle of des­per­ate gi­ants. Even a sin­gle drift­ing berg does not stay quiet for long.

Wrapped in a sticky cot­ton-candy kind of fog, we have just reached 66 de­grees and 33 min­utes North—the Arc­tic Cir­cle. Ash Buchan­nan and Nick Berner, our young com­pan­ions on this trip, be­gan their ini­ti­a­tion of a crawl, a dance, and a drink of gi­antsquid blood to earn an Arc­tic Cir­cle cer­tifi­cate. I was dron­ing King Nep­tune’s warn­ings and wel­comes pla­gia­rized from the Royal Navy ar­chives when a can­non boomed, sharp as thun­der. In the com­pletely calm air the sound car­ried far—this berg, prob­a­bly about to crack and roll over us, was three miles away.

July, the best month for plea­sur­ing on yachts in this part of the world, had just be­gun. Two weeks ear­lier we de­parted Hawke Har­bor in Labrador hop­ing to go straight to Aasi­aat, a har­bor on the south edge of Disko Bay, about 1,000 miles away. We care­fully had stud­ied the grib fore­casts for Davis Strait and on this, our sixth cross­ing, the weather was un­usu­ally kind. The northerly wind, a head­wind, be­gan to stir, when in swirling fog we al­ready had closed on the Green­land coast. Not to worry, Fiske­naes­set, a tiny town and port (pop. 230), was just a few hours away and one night at an­chor there ush­ered in a sunny calm day. The con­cept of night ac­tu­ally didn’t ap­ply here since in sum­mer at these lat­i­tudes the sun just wheels about and up and down with­out set­ting; hence the fa­mous mid­night sun of the Arc­tic.

Ten hours from Fiske­naes­saet in a pro­tected sound hides the Po­lar Oil de­pot, the most con­ve­nient fu­elling place on the coast,

and the friendli­est. Tanks topped up again, we moved on to lunch of pick­led her­ring, smoked mack­erel, and pick­led beets, adding a Dan­ish slant to our smør­re­brød. Faer­ing­havn, now an aban­doned port barely a mile away, once served Faeroese fish­er­men. From its pro­tected wa­ters we en­joyed a sam­ple of western Green­land land­scapes. South from the an­chor­age rose dis­tant high moun­tains, ice and snow high­light­ing the high ridges. Nearby, low hills led to a ghostly aban­doned set­tle­ment com­plete with the wreck of a fish­ing cut­ter, its oak bones weath­ered sil­ver and, at the head of the bay, high and dry, the rust red hulk of a sail­ing ship.

By then the coastal wa­ters were mostly free of ice. Dur­ing the pas­sage north on gen­tle seas rolling un­der patchy fog, the only ex­cite­ment came from the heavy breath­ing of un­seen whales, and the fran­tic splash­ing of seals fol­low­ing feed­ing dol­phins. The last 80 miles on the in­ner route to Aasi­aat me­an­ders through a maze of sker­ries, islets, promon­to­ries, and lots of ice. The forces that wedged enor­mous tow­ers of ice so far in­land de­fied imag­i­na­tion. A few low growlers pen­e­trated into Aasi­aat’s har­bor and bumped into the wharves. Not daunted, the lo­cal kayak club put on a show of cold wa­ter seamanship. The Ir­ish ex­pe­di­tion yacht Kil­lary Flyer brought sea kayak­ers with them. Green­land’s fa­mous cham­pion demon­strated for them all 31 Eskimo roll re­cov­ery tech­niques, qa­jaq af­ter all is an Inuit in­ven­tion a few thou­sand years old.

Out in fog-bound Disko Bay the radar painted fright­en­ing ar­madas of solid blobs. All these ice­bergs were com­ing from a tide­wa­ter glacier in the south­east cor­ner of the bay. Fog in the lee of ice­bergs

emit­ted a ghostly glow. On oc­ca­sions the dark sea sud­denly gleamed green—a color of dan­ger—some seven-eighths of a typ­i­cal berg hide be­neath the wa­ter, with shal­low spurs jut­ting out. When the fog thinned, we saw ice cas­tles, arches, dry docks and am­phithe­aters ahead, be­hind, to port, and to star­board—the seascape scin­til­lated. Now, when­ever we passed near a par­tic­u­larly threat­en­ing berg, Ash and Nick jumped in for a quick dip. Af­ter­ward, they de­clared, the cold breeze on deck felt al­most trop­i­cal.

While the sum­mer weather stayed calm we pressed on along western Disko Is­land, still in dense fog. Then sud­denly, like a cur­tain yanked up into the blue sky, the fog van­ished. We en­tered Umanak Fjord—a line of saw­tooth moun­tains punc­tured the hori­zon ahead. Ice­bergs were everywhere, many reach­ing for the sky with abrupt spires ri­val­ing the spiky heights of the main­land. The glaciers from Green­land’s ice cap reach Umanak Fjord and in­evitably, like an­cient re­doubts, crum­ble. The loose ice blocks drift about on un­pre­dictable cur­rents. Qe­qer­tat, a cove we used be­fore, was plugged by a ma­li­cious berg stuck on the bar. Forced to find another an­chor­age we pow­ered along Ag­pat Is­land, its sheer walls thou­sands feet high. At the south­east tip a slot opened into a bot­tom­less bowl un­der ver­tig­i­nous cliffs. Even­tu­ally we found a tiny 75-foot-deep shelf to at­tach the boat.

Shy patches of flow­ers added color to a steep hill­side off our bow. We had to crawl on all fours to reach the crest. The 270 de­grees of view took our breath away—the ice­bergs that pre­vi­ously tow­ered over the boat now looked tiny, snowflakes on the blue can­vas of the sea. In the dis­tance, ap­par­ently at eye level straight ahead, glowed the mighty main­land ice cap. On the closer high is­lands, raw um­ber rock bas­tions of abut­ments rimmed the whole scene. A pas­tel patch­work of homes on a

pan­cake of an islet far down marked a vil­lage. It lacked any pro­tec­tion from the sea, weather, and ice so we de­cided in­stead to visit Um­man­naq, a small town with a har­bor about 20 miles away.

Out­side the canyon walls of Ag­pat the wind hit hard, yet the seas stayed low. The white line ahead grad­u­ally hard­ened into un­end­ing pro­ces­sion of float­ing is­lands of ice. Af­ter round­ing Umanak Is­land it be­came clear the har­bor must have been to­tally blocked. How­ever, Spra­gle­bugt, an ice-free bay on the west side gave us shel­ter. Over­look­ing the an­chor­age was a hut where, the Green­land pro­pa­ganda claims, Santa Claus lives. As vis­i­tors out of sea­son we must re­port Santa and rein­deer gone. A walk via rough trails and a back road brought us to the ice-choked town port; a fleet of wooden fish­ing cut­ters trapped in piles of bergy bits the size of SUVs. A small ship made it in to the wharf despite the for­mi­da­ble lineup of tab­u­lar ice­bergs poised to oblit­er­ate the com­mu­nity. Rocky reefs out­side the har­bor must have pre­vented, once again, the an­ni­hi­la­tion of Uum­man­naq, a town of over 1,200 with a fairly long his­tory.

Green­land at­tracts ad­ven­tur­ers on boats. In Aasi­aat, three yachts were get­ting ready for the Northwest Pas­sage, but you never know who else could lurk within the archipela­goes on this vast coast. In the evening, Dodo’s De­light II pow­ered in. All of 34 feet long, it has served Bob Shep­ton as a char­iot for high-lat­i­tude voy­ages, Arc­tic, Antarc­tic, Cape Horn, Northwest Pas­sage. Rev­erend Bob, 80 now, and four ex­treme rock climbers called The Wild Bunch, just fin­ished sev­eral firsts on some im­pos­si­ble

walls in western Green­land—just a warm-up for a cross­ing to Baf­fin Is­land and more climb­ing. Armed with a flute, man­delin, a squeeze box, a har­mon­ica, and spoons, they put on a rous­ing con­cert when aboard our “vo­lu­mi­nous” 44-footer.

In all of our three vis­its, Umanak Fjord seemed to gen­er­ate bet­ter weather than most of the west coast. Calms pre­vailed, in­ter­rupted by short spells of fresh breezes, and the ab­sence of fog kept the for­mi­da­ble alpine land­scapes on dis­play. No won­der that here Rock­well Kent, a prom­i­nent Amer­i­can artist, pro­duced his best work. Never mind that he first reached Green­land by way of a friend’s boat wreck. From his base on Ubek­endt Is­land at the mouth of Umanak Fjord he ex­plored and painted for two years, sum­mer and win­ter. In a 2016 trip we crunched through brash ice al­most to the very shores of Karat Is­land, Kent’s fa­vored lo­ca­tion. His home in Iglorssuit vil­lage has changed into a tiny, lively com­mu­nity with boats on the move, huskies a-howl, Arc­tic char dry­ing on the racks, seal skins stretched in the sun. Even though the warmth of evening sun­shine painted pur­ple the moun­tain over the vil­lage, we were al­ready head­ing south.

The dark and brood­ing moun­tains of Disko Is­land stood clear ahead. Vaigat, a large strait that sep­a­rates Disko from the main­land, opened up. Three years ear­lier, on our first at­tempt of Vaigat pas­sage Nancy had ex­cit­edly be­gun count­ing the ice­bergs: 35..ah…75… ah…and soon gave up. This time we could see only three bergs and changed course into Vaigat’s mouth hop­ing to an­chor in some of the fjords on the main­land. It can be a tricky pas­sage. The winds tend to blow hard in the fun­nel be­tween high moun­tain ranges. Twice in the past, caught in the thick­en­ing ice of floes and ice­bergs we couldn’t de­tect and avoid low growlers lost in the sun glar­ing on the sea of white caps and had to turn back. This time, off the north shore of Disko Is­land, un­der 2,000foot moun­tains brood­ing over wind­ing val­leys, the molten sil­ver sea sud­denly rip­pled into steep chop. The wind came up from the east too strong to keep the course.

Along the es­cape route back on the western shores of Disko

lies Nord­fjord. Fol­low­ing the radar line of land to port we cheated the fog stream­ing sea­ward from some­where ahead. Then the rain came down in tor­rents. It beat down the fog so a cove in the foot of a val­ley came in sight. Be­fore long, flash floods rushed down the fjord set­ting off cur­rents that strayed into the an­chor­age. A bump against the hull brought me on deck just in time to grab the ice pole and push off a good size growler that swung in on one of the off­beat whirlpools. The rain must have dis­lodged some ice in the moun­tains for we did not see any sea ice when en­ter­ing.

On the 24th of July the sun sank be­low the hori­zon af­ter mid­night and emerged or­ange over the moun­tains to the north­east at 0345. Ear­lier, the pink rosy moon rose, then slowly went across the bows where it hov­ered in the blue haze on the western hori­zon. Despite the warm air, at about 40 de­grees Cel­sius, it felt that sum­mer was per­haps hav­ing its last fling. The buttes over For­tune Bay on the south shore of Disko Is­land shim­mered red in soft light. Hik­ing to­ward the heights opened a view of white bergs march­ing west. The old whal­ing port of God­havn (now Qe­qer­tar­suaq, pop. < 900) was only two miles away. Now and then a small motor boat swung by with food for the huskies ma­rooned for the sum­mer on the islets nearby.

About 200 miles south of Disko Bay, we reached the en­trance to Ham­borg­er­sund, an area of in­ac­ces­si­ble moun­tains bor­der­ing nar­row deep-wa­ter pas­sages. In good vis­i­bil­ity the view is stag­ger­ing but in­stead we had the thrill of grop­ing through wet woolly fog, the islets in the ap­proach vague as ghosts when only yards away. Late in the day the belt of fog shrank to a lu­mi­nous bol­ster over the sea. Across the chan­nel from our an­chor­age at Ag­pamiut ap­peared a row of brave jagged peaks all gilded in the wes­t­er­ing sun. A short dinghy row to a stream pro­vided wa­ter for baths and tanks, and fresh, lit­er­ally, since it came from the melt­ing ice higher up. Near by, at low tide, Ash and Nick dis­cov­ered beds of the largest and tasti­est mus­sels in Green­land.

One arm of this net­work of fjords leads to Ser­milin­guaq and its ex­ten­sive glacier. The snout of the glacier has re­treated and drops most of its ice into a sort of small lake. To find proper depths for an­chor­ing we had to come close to the sub­merged parts of the moraine, where the an­chors held well in mud and sand de­liv­ered by two rivers. The glacier made its own weather—cooled in the night, the air at dawn was wild with wispy low clouds swirling in the golden light of sun­rise.

On the ocean edge of this area sits Man­it­soq, a busy town and port of about 2,500 peo­ple and our last port. On the way out of Ser­milin­guaq, rook­eries of thou­sands of gulls and kit­ti­wakes looked like snow patches over the green mead­ows. Af­ter turn­ing south into the main chan­nel the lower hills to star­board looked in shape, color, and tex­ture like mud heaps squeezed be­tween the fin­gers of pri­mor­dial gi­ants. Man­it­soq Har­bor of­fers yachts a float­ing dock with de­cent depths—a rar­ity on this coast. Two gro­cery stores, a clinic, a hos­pi­tal and a ho­tel with good Wi-Fi make it a con­ve­nient stop. About 400 miles to the west across Davis Strait stretches the north­ern Labrador coast. By now in mid-Au­gust it should be mostly clear of ice so we headed di­rectly to­ward it.

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Above: The aban­doned port of Faer­ing­havn once served Faeroese fish­er­men. Right: Ash Buchan­nan, one of our young com­pan­ions, rises from a dip in the frigid wa­ter. Far Right: At the head of the bay, a derelict steel sail­ing ship rusts into obli­vian.

A gi­ant ice­berg emerges from hazy fog in Disko Bay. Be­low Left: Shore vis­its in Green­land are rarely lack­ing fas­ci­na­tions. Op­po­site: Tow­er­ing ice­bergs sud­denly look like ice cubes bob­bing in the ocean.

You can never tire of the scenery and the scale of the nat­u­ral sur­round­ings in Green­land.

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